One motivation for developing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) has been to democratize education by giving everyone access to knowledge often presented by leading professors. It was certainly one reason why I developed and delivered two MOOCs on ‘Energy: Thermodynamics in Everyday Life‘ in 2015/16 and ‘Understanding Super Structures’ in 2017. The workload involved in supporting thousands of learners around the global is not insignificant and was unsustainable for me so I gave up after running them for a couple of years despite the intangible rewards [see ‘Knowledge spheres‘ on March 9th, 2016 and ‘A liberal engineering education‘ on March 2nd, 2016] . However, I incorporated the MOOC on energy into my undergraduate module on thermodynamics to create a blended approach to learning [see ‘Blended learning environments‘ on November 14th, 2018]. This paid dividends for me when the pandemic forced our campus into lock-down in the middle of semester last March and I already had a large number of bite-sized activities available online for our students. Most universities have had to move their teaching online due to the pandemic; but not all students are able to access the online materials as easily others. The Booker shortlisted novelist, Tsitsi Dangarembga has reported how one of her neighbours has struggled to access resources recommended to him by lecturers at his college in Bulawayo due to the cost and unreliability of Wi-Fi in Zimbabwe. She tried to help him by registering him for her hotspot package but, in common with many students, he studies mainly at night when hotspot venues are closed. The maps shows the global distribution of learners in one of the Energy MOOCs that I delivered and you can see the holes in Africa and South America which, at the time, we thought might be due to a lack of computer and internet access and Dangarembga’s account seems to support this hypothesis. So, we designed our second MOOC on Structures to be accessible via a mobile phone by using fewer videos and more audio clips that could be quickly downloaded and listened to offline. Unfortunately, we ran out of resources to complete the research on whether it was accessed more successfully in those grey areas on the map; however, the audio recordings were unpopular with the more traditional audience in the USA and UK who gave us immediate and vocal feedback!
Last week I wrote about the practical exercises that I have been setting as homework in my first year undergraduate course on thermodynamics. The instruction sheets that I published had been used by thousands of learners on my MOOC, Energy! The Thermodynamics of Everyday Life; and slightly modified versions had been used by more than a thousand students at the University of Liverpool. A few years ago, I produced another MOOC called ‘Understanding Superstructures’ which also contained three practical exercises for online learners to perform in their kitchens. I have not used them as part of a blended undergraduate course but nevertheless they have been completed by hundreds of participants in the MOOC. I have decided to share them for colleagues to use in support of first year courses on the Mechanics of Solids or the Mechanics of Structures. There is strong food flavour and no additional equipment is needed. Please feel free to use them to support your teaching.
Instruction sheets for thermodynamics practical exercises as homework:
I am in the London Underground onboard a train on my way to a conference on ‘New Approaches to Higher Education’ organised by the Institution of Engineering and Technology and the Engineering Professors’ Council. The lady opposite has her eyes closed but she is not asleep because she opens them periodically as we come into stations to check whether it’s her stop. I wonder if she is trying to reproduce John Hull’s experience of the depth of sounds as a blind person [see my post entitled ‘Rain brings out the contours in everything‘ on February 22, 2017]. For the second time in recent weeks, I close my eyes and try it for myself. It is surprising how in a crowded train, I can’t hear anyone, just the noise made by the train. It’s like a wobble board that’s joined by a whole percussion section of an orchestra when we go around a bend or over points. The first time I closed my eyes was at a concert at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool. My view of the orchestra was obstructed by the person in front of me so, rather than stare at the back of their head, I closed my eyes and allowed the music to dominate my mind. Switching off the stream of images seemed to release more of my brain cells to register the depth and richness of Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 5. I was classified as tone deaf at school when I was kicked out of the choir and I learned no musical instruments, so the additional texture and dimensionality in the music was a revelation to me.
Back to the London Underground – many of my fellow passengers were plugged into their phones or tablets via their ears and eyes. I wondered if any were following the MOOC on Understanding Super Structures that we launched recently. Unlikely I know, but it’s a bit different, because it is mainly audio clips and not videos. We’re trying to tap into some of the time many people spend with earbuds plugged into their ears but also make the MOOC more accessible in countries where internet access is mainly via mobile phones. My recent experiences of listening with my eyes closed, make me realize that perhaps we should ask people to close their eyes when listening to our audio clips so that they can fully appreciate them. If they are sitting on the train then that’s fine but not recommended if you are walking across campus or in town!